This year’s annual statistics on looked after children and care leavers shows large regional variations in the proportion of care leavers in England who entered care at or after the age of 16. London is home to 29% of late entrants, compared to the north east at just 3%.
As an applied social researcher with Barnardo’s, this was a research topic I was keen to explore as our partnership with the London Borough of Brent Council began. We work to ensure research generates meaningful insights so Barnardo’s can design solutions with people that best meet their needs. The partnership focuses on creating a movement for change, so that young people leaving care have better outcomes and receive the support they deserve.
Data shows around 120 young people that Brent support as care leavers entered care for the first time aged 16+, and that as a proportion of their 300+ care leaver population, this group is growing every year.
As I discovered through a rapid evidence review, the experiences and outcomes of late entrants is not very well documented. This was an opportunity to add to a slim evidence base by conducting primary qualitative research with experts by experience. From December 2019 to July 2020, with the help of the Care Journeys team of project workers and designers, we conducted 27 depth interviews with 11 professionals and 16 young people.
Late entrants came through four main routes:
- As unaccompanied asylum seekers.
- Through the youth justice system.
- Mental health inpatient services.
- Emergency placements following family breakdown/contextual safeguarding.
Some late entrants had ‘bounced around’ the system for many years, potentially having been on the ‘edge of care’, while others were new to Children’s Services. For the former, their social networks i.e. the people in their lives such as friends, family and other professionals, were well known to Children’s Services in Brent, whereas this was not always the case for the latter group. Our analysis showed that while the size of late entrant’s networks was no bigger or smaller than other care leavers in other parts of the country, they did have good support from within a few trusted relationships.
Three themes then began to fit into place:
- Young people who repeatedly told their stories didn’t appear to have faith that much could change. They said they had to be in crisis, or ‘do it themselves’, if they wanted any help.
- Some young people were suspicious of all the bureaucracy, multiple worker changes, and that navigating the system felt overwhelming and complicated.
- Professionals noted these young people were not afraid to challenge the way things were done, and this was seen as a strength that allowed workers to critically reflect on practice.
- Some young people were grateful for the support they received despite a clear recognition that it was not ideal; particularly so for unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people.
The majority of late entrants are in semi-independent houses, which brings a mixed bag of experiences. Some had witnessed fights, had their belongings stolen and felt heavily monitored, while others had met friends and had been helped by keyworkers who acted is their interpreters, helping them settle in to life in the UK.
Where help had been good, young people said they felt supported with both practical and emotional challenges. One young person remembered a worker who had helped with college, housing and benefits payments on the day they were released from prison. Good workers believe them and believed in them.
Yet we know this was not a consistent experience and there are points in the journey where support is failing young people.
- Rushed handovers between staff were felt acutely by young people; this had resulted in repeated story-telling and feeling ‘fed up’.
- Where young people were eligible for care leaver support on release from prison, this often came to the attention of the leaving care team very late. This group said they did not understand their rights and entitlements as care leavers as they didn’t consider themselves to be looked after.
- Documentation and age assessments for unaccompanied young people were a particular sticking point, resulting in delays and frustration for workers and young people alike.
Colleagues within Brent are working tirelessly to improve support for their young people. Taking time to build relationships with late entrants is key, as they are only ‘in the system’ for a short amount of time. I heard stories of colleagues going above and beyond to gain trust, to stick with a young person until they were ready.
If you are working with late entrants, you might like to:
- Remind them of their rights and entitlements often and in different ways: the impact of trauma and disruption means young people might not always understand or remember what you’re telling them the first or even second time.
- Where possible, share documents virtually, so online translation is easier as many young people who speak English as an additional language use their smartphones to translate text.
- Be prepared to support late entrants with both evident (emergency support with housing and money) and entrenched issues (accumulative impact of trauma). Young people can sense when they are being pushed out and this is particularly so for those in care for a short time. Similarly, adolescents who enter care late may seem to be doing well enough to progress on without support, however this could be a coping mechanism to mask deeper issues as they might want to disengage quickly once they have received support for their most pressing needs.
- Understand their networks and work towards a model of interdependence where there are assets and allies within these networks who can sustainably and safely support young people after statutory services end.
And as always, exercise patience with this group in particular, acknowledging their unique strengths and challenges as young people. Care leavers are not a homogenous group, and late entrants in particular have faced sometimes very different care journeys to others who have been in care for longer.
In the next phase of our work we will co-design and test potential solutions to the issues professionals and young people see as most pertinent to a better care journey. By working in this iterative way and being committed to co-production, we will honour the expertise of those with lived experience, by putting them in the driver’s seat to create change. As the solutions gain ground, we would love to test them out in other areas too.
Download the Late entrants discovery research: Key findings.